'Three strike' lifers freed from prison

Sajad Shakoor poses for a photograph at his place of work, Falafel Corner, in Fremont, Calif.

California voters turned from locking up repeat offenders for life to approving a process to set many of them free.

SAN JOSE, Calif. - After being locked behind bars for nearly 19 years of what he thought would be the rest of his life, Stephen Williams suddenly was set free this past winter, dressed in flimsy coveralls over boxer shorts and a white T-shirt. In those first moments on the outside, his abject discomfort and appearance were so startling, strangers took pictures of him as they might a terrified animal released into the wild.

The initial shock is long past, but Williams and more than 1,000 other early-release "three-strikers" still have a formidable challenge ahead: re-establishing themselves in a world they didn't expect to re-enter, often without much support. Such is the fallout of a three-strikes reform measure, Proposition 36, backed by more than two-thirds of California's electorate this past fall in a startling 180-degree switch on crime.

Turning away from nearly two decades of locking up repeat offenders for life over minor offenses, voters instead embraced a process of setting many of them free. Another 2,000 inmates are eligible for release in coming months.
However, many of the newly released find themselves lost. Some have likened it to stepping out of a time machine with just the shirt on their backs.
That's mostly because the system that released them has not figured ways to help with basics, housing, drug treatment and employment, that will support success. These former third-strikers have been locked up an average of nine years, are nearing 50 years of age and are prone to physical and mental illnesses. Yet they don't receive the same assistance afforded parolees and probationers who have been behind bars for shorter periods.

Related: Early release for ill prisoners in US prisons?

Many activists are clamoring for the state and counties to invest in support programs because incarceration costs are much steeper; some, such as Santa Clara County, are heeding the call. The effort comes as a federal three-judge panel is urging California to consider setting thousands more three-strikers free to reduce prison overcrowding.
So far, the ex-convicts are doing their part by keeping the recidivism rate extremely low. It's less than 2 percent.
This is a story about three men determined to make the most of the unexpected good fortune of being released. One of them has garnered special support from nonprofits; a second is being helped by his church and family. The third, mostly alone, is struggling to keep his precious freedom while making his way in a world all of them find daunting.

KEPT MOVING

It's been eight months since Williams walked free from Contra Costa County Jail as a posse of rude gawkers snapped their cellphone cameras in his direction from behind the glass of a McDonald's in downtown Martinez.

After changing into some used clothes provided by the public defender, the burly, 6-foot-3-inch ex-con used his jail-issued bus and BART tickets to ride the 35 miles to his childhood home, near the Coliseum, in a rough section of Oakland. There, he took a sweet moment to embrace the 89-year-old mother he feared he'd never see again, then immediately began looking for work.

He's been moving ever since.

"I'm hungry, I'm motivated," says Williams, 52. "I was locked up 24/7, now I'm looking to work 24/7."

Among the first people sentenced under the Three Strikes Law in 1994, Williams was given 25 years to life for stealing a car in El Sobrante. It was his third strike after serving time for twice burglarizing the Southern California home of a man he says cheated him out of a $1,000 deposit he put down to purchase a motorcycle.

He spent 18 years and 11 months in prison before being released under Proposition 36, for which he spent countless hours copying and addressing campaign mailers from inside Soledad Prison.

Readjusting to society was a deep shock: The Bay Area was more crowded and more ethnically diverse. The traffic and noise stunned him. In the new world, organic foods and products were everywhere.
 The cost of everything had skyrocketed. His knowledge of technology lagged behind even children, armed with their own cellphones and iPads.

Williams started humbly, putting the word out that he was looking for odd jobs such as cutting grass and gutting houses to prep them for electrical work. His happy adventures of freedom came in the form of signing up for computer classes, creating his own email address and opening a bank account. He also secured a cellphone.

Stephen Williams, left, watches as Volkswagen service consultant Daniel Hawn pairs a phone with a car via Bluetooth in Oakland, California.MCT: D. Ross Cameron, Bay Area News Group

Stephen Williams, left, watches as Volkswagen service consultant Daniel Hawn pairs a phone with a car via Bluetooth in Oakland, California.

Within six weeks, he was hired at a temporary labor firm, earning $10 an hour. He eagerly signed up for the 3 a.m. jobs no one else wanted. He loaded and unloaded catered meals and air freight at the Oakland and San Francisco airports before moving on to his current assignment, moving loads of concrete supplies at a warehouse.

This month, Williams reached a major hurdle: He replaced his faithful bike by buying a car, lovingly dubbed his "hustle mobile." The 2003 Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen brings him closer to his dream of restarting his own mobile car-detailing business.

"So much time has been taken away from me. I'll never get that time back, but I'm not concerned about that. I'm focused on establishing a strong foundation," Williams says. "The world has changed, and if you want to stay afloat you have to change with it."

MAKING GYROS

Sajad Shakoor was supposed to be in prison until at least 2022. But today, he spends his days making gyros and shish kebabs at the Falafel Corner in Fremont, gregariously chatting with customers and working as many hours as his boss allows.

"Alhamdulillah, I'm blessed," says the 41-year-old, beaming, as he used the Arabic phrase expressing relief and praise to God.

Many inmates released from long prison sentences begin their new lives in group homes, but Shakoor found a fast track to independence. His family bought him a 38-foot trailer and parked it on an isolated lot near their Lodi home.
 Even though it had no electricity, the structure met Shakoor's desire for a quiet transition back into a busy world he hadn't experienced since the late 1990s.

"I have friends who chose to go to transitional housing just to ease back to society, but some of them have been there a year now," says Shakoor, happy to have personally managed his own re-entry.

"That transition back to society is pretty daunting," he says about typical ex-convicts. "They don't have transportation, so they can't travel to get to work. They don't have housing that's either permanent or stable. Alhamdulillah, I was able to get both."

Stung by slurs and bullying during his Sacramento youth - he is Pakistani-American - Shakoor says his honor-roll trajectory went horribly awry when he bought a gun during his freshman year of high school. With a semi-automatic he thought was the "perfect gangster gun," he searched for acceptance from the school's meanest kids.

"Because of that gun," he says with the wisdom of hindsight, "I actually ended up becoming the same type of jerk as those guys who were bullying me. I became one of them."

His participation in gang shootouts forced his stunned parents to move the family of five to Lodi, but that didn't help. Finally, he says, two residential burglaries he committed in the same week got him locked up for 3 years.
His third strike happened years later, and under most circumstances it wouldn't have carried such a harsh sentence. Police accused him of instigating a fight between two friends and next-door neighbors that resulted in serious injury.

 Although he didn't commit the assault, the trial came to focus on a moral question that gave the judge and jury a bad impression of him: Why didn't he call 911 to help a friend he knew was seriously beaten?
 Shakoor thinks his flustered answer to a judge's pointed questions cost him a sentence of 25 years to life.

A revival of his Muslim faith while in prison helped guide Shakoor toward repentance and contemplation. He relished the educational offerings at San Quentin State Prison, studied literature and even earned a bachelor's degree through an Ohio University program for prisoners.

He was instrumental in the movement that freed him and others by co-founding and managing San Quentin's Hope for Three Strikers, a group that collaborated with Stanford law professors in drafting Proposition 36.

It wasn't long after his May 28 release that he secured his $9.50-an-hour restaurant job thanks, he says, to the compassionate embrace of Fremont's middle-class Muslim community. Falafel Corner's owner said he had never hired or even met an ex-con before, but an imam persuaded him to give Shakoor a chance.

SCRATCH AND CLAW

At age 50, Martin Stagi's routine would overwhelm even the most hyperactive teen.
Fueled by determination never to go back to prison, the broad-chested, tattooed native of East San Jose bicycles from his job, to his classes, to his tiny curtained cubicle at the homeless shelter _ more than 10 miles a day.
Six days a week, he performs backbreaking physical labor, cleaning the large shopping center parking lot at Story and King roads, including two shifts from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. The rest of the time, he's juggling a challenging schedule, including DUI school to get his driver's license back and night and weekend classes to become a certified electrician.

"I have to scratch and claw to make it," he says. "It would be so easy to get back into (drugs and crime). I've had to cut people loose. I don't want to be around it."

Martin Stagi power washes sidewalks in a shopping center in San Jose, CalifMCT: Karl Mondon, Bay Area News Group

Martin Stagi power washes sidewalks in a shopping center in San Jose, Calif

Most people in need of money slave away in their teens and 20s. Stagi spent most of his youth in prison. Then, a minor drug offense that counted as a third strike put him away for 26 years to life. He was 34.

Today, all he does is try to make up for lost time. The past nine months have been tough since he got out of Pleasant Valley Prison in Coalinga with only $200 in gate money.

At first, he tried staying with his sons. But they live in small apartments with their own kids, and there simply was not enough room. They also can't help but resent him, even though Stagi used the 15 years and nine months he was in prison to work on the angry attitude that got him into legal trouble and left his sons to grow up without a father.

"I had to take a real good look at myself, at why things were the way they were, at how I treated my ex-wife and kids, other people," he said. "I was an ass."

Like most third-strikers who have emerged into the 21st century, he marvels at cellphones and ubiquitous computers. But the Bay Area's high cost of living, especially for housing, locks him into a circle of constant despair he cannot escape.

So far, he's been bunking at the InnVision homeless shelter on Montgomery Street. This month, he would have been back out on the street because his time there had elapsed.

 But with the help of Stanford University's Three Strikes Project and Santa Clara County's Re-entry Resource Center, his stay was extended until Jan. 20.

Stagi next plans to apply for rental assistance under a new Santa Clara County program intended to help third-strikers get back on their feet.

He will still be struggling to make it, even with $1,000 a month for rent from the county for up to a year. But he will get his license back in February, a sign he's making progress.

"I'm trying not to give up," he says. "It's just tough.''

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